My Gothic Childhood: Some notes on emigration, immigration and Depeche Mode

by on Oct.05, 2012

Speaking of transfigurations… There’s an interview with Bob Dylan in a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine where he talks about his experiences of “transfiguration,” how his own famed motorcycle accident in 1966 and the fatal accident of another “Robert Zimmerman,” president of the Hell’s Angels in 1961, and how he has ever since performed much like a dead person.

His description feels strangely perfect for how I have felt my whole adult life. I’ve been thinking about my own deathy ideas about immigration the past few weeks. Or I should say, I’ve been thinking about my ideas about emigration; or I’ve been thinking about my feelings about my emigration/immigration experience.

For a long time I only thought about my immigration experience. I’ve written about it too. How I came to the US and generated all of this extreme violence in the Minneapolis suburb I moved to. This has become a model for me of understanding my own (non-) identity, an embattled figure. But it’s kind of a static model. It’s a harsh but easy model to adopt.

The other day I was reading Banu Kapil’s Nightboat book Schizophrene. It’s a book that feels like a membrane permeated by both India and London, as if both were ghostly spheres, or as if the speaker was a kind of ghost moving through two separate spheres. That’s actually what made me go back into my own experiences of immigration, experiences that aren’t as easy or clean as the embattled immigrant model I’ve written about in the past. To try to invoke my decidedly gothic view of my life with all of its transfigurations.

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Moving to the US when I was 13 totally destroyed me. But it wasn’t exactly the violence of my reception that destroyed me. If anything, that violence provided a myth I could use to understand things. What destroyed me most of all was the idea that I had been torn out of the life where I belonged, my life, and that everyone I knew, everything went on without me. That I had died. That I existed in some kind of sphere outside of life.

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This feeling lasted for years. I remember listening to Depeche Mode’s 1987 record, Music for the Masses, and feeling an idiotic identification with this song:

On one level, this is a sex song, but now as then, it strikes me as much creepier than a seduction song. Sure there is moaning, but to me now as then, this sounds as much like someone trying to breathe through some kind of emergency breathing-tube or respirator as much as people making sex sounds. And while the lyrics do suggest a sex invitation, they are weirdly more than that:

My heart is aching
My body is burning
My hands are shaking

This doesn’t sound like your average horniness (he isn’t “one of the boys”), it sounds more like someone going through a deeply traumatic experience, or a Poe narrator (in say “Ligeia”) when he connects to the dead forces, when the mystical forces are breaking through.

And what’s this trauma about?

“Everyone has gone.”

Looking back, the way I “read” that song was as a kind of life-in-death depiction of the trauma I was going through, went through for several years. The feeling of being dead in life. Being re-animated through some kind of torturous process.

(Of course, one can’t disociate the song from the sex. But then I’ve always had an over-the-top love of women and their bodies, and have often mediated the world through those bodies, through sex – see “Dear Ra” (Starcherone Books, 2008) And I’m not the only one… See Klimt, Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson etc, all of which I love).

But maybe weirdest of all. Listening to the song now, I hear at the end something I didn’t remember: A voice speaking in Russian. Maybe from a Tarkovsky movie? It’s a little bit like the “Paul is dead” bit from “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but here the occult voice is in a foreign language. The Foreign voice is always – by definition – a kind of excess. As Herman Broch said about kitsch: “a foreign body lodged in the overall system of art.” Something that can’t be contained by the “I” of the song, the voice of the song, the voice of the human.

(Thanks to the Internet, I found out that the Russian voice is from a news broadcast: “”Reports in the evolution of nuclear arsenals is considered social psychological problems of the arms race.” Wonderfully translatese.)

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And thanks to youtube, I found this song, “Sweet 15,” from the same album, which I don’t’ remember but which makes the connection to this kind of Gothic Lana-Del-Ray-ish figure more explicit:

(And to go back to the Russian, the video’s visual aesthetics seems to invoke Russian film, which seems significant b/c of the impending end of the cold war, the cold war of my childhood. But the Russian aeshethics are kitched/gothed up with the implicit murder mystery corridors/frantic stairways – the girl isn’t killed but again, the atmosphere seems to imply that she will die, possibly in the hands of the speaker. Here I suddenly think of another of their songs, “Stripped,” which in retrospect seems spoken from the point of view of a rapist-killer.)

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Now that I think about the kid I was back then, I can’t imagine him surviving, whether in the US or Sweden. It could be that moving to the US saved my life, transfigured through violence a person who was bound for death. Even while I lived in Sweden, I had hallucinations of ghosts, and was prone to sudden crying fits, spasmadic breakdowns. I was extremely, horrifyingly skinny.

It might be that I fit better in the US, as that person seems like the victim in a US murder mystery – the kind of figure (mostly a young woman or girl) who is so sensitive he/she seemingly can’t survive the murderous atmosphere of the story/movie, that the murder almost feels like someone completing her/him (I love Lana Del Ray, Twin Peaks, all those noir movies where the woman is doomed, that show “The Killing” that was on TV last year etc). And the mystery then becomes in a sense a quest of a detective to find the narrative of her mystery, to re-animate her.

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I remember writing a letter to my grandmother around this time telling her how I thought about the Swedish language all the time, how when I heard it in a song or read a story it resonated for me. She wrote back to my mom, telling her to have me locked up. Of course she could have said I should write poetry.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    The past year or so I’ve really been feeling this intense nostalgia for the Soviet Union and the cold war in general. It’s odd: all of my memories pre-1989 seem to have a more lurid color brought on by the all-too-possible apocalypse. I think a lot of people of that generation (born in the mid-70s) just assumed there would be a nuclear apocalypse before they grew up. And so much great Art was produced under that cloud…In fact, so much of the punk and new wave aesthetic was an art that projected itself past the Catastrophe, zombies walking amid the ruins before the ruins had arrived…

    James